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Alumni Spotlight: Demetria Thomas

A conversation with Director Demetria Thomas

Armando: What's the inspiration that got you into theatre?

Demetria: The first thing I ever wanted to be was a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader. At the same time, I was tall and had pretty good control of my speech, so I was often called on to read things out loud at church or present things. I don't remember deciding that I wanted to be an actor. I remember having a big fight with my parents when I told them I wanted to be a theatre major. They said, "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. That is absolutely ridiculous. You need to be a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary." And I said, "No, I don't want that." Then I went to school for a year or two, and my parents came down to see a show that I was in. I got the nod from my dad. That is burned into my memory. It was him saying, "Okay, you can do this."

Armando: That's so nice. Sort of bittersweet

Demetria: Well, you see, my parents stood their ground. I am a Gen Xer, and my parents were born in the [19]40s. Black people in central Mississippi in the forties, fifties, and sixties understood that college was the opportunity to raise up the family. Given their understanding of how fickle the theatre business can be, they didn't consider it a sound investment. My mom was a teacher, and she went to community college, and she got her teaching certificate. She worked for Head Start and was in early childhood education for forty years. My father was an artist at heart. He went to college but then stopped going because he didn't want to do any other classes besides art. At the time, he didn't have access to a visual arts conservatory. He was like a man of many talents—a Renaissance man if there was ever one.

Armando : My parents were teachers. For my mom, there were no other choices besides being a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary.

Demetria: I don't know who gave them that mantra to teach us that. As a BIPOC person in America, those were the only options for us. It wasn't until the eighties and nineties that we finally had the opportunity to become doctors or professors. When I started working professionally as an actor, most of my day jobs were primarily as an administrative assistant.

Armando: What are some of your favorite past projects?

Demetria: The play that my dad gave me the head nod on was The Good Woman of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht. I was an underclassman, and I was just a random Brechtian prostitute to the left. The lead got sick, and so she couldn't do the show. Five days before opening, I got recast, and I had to learn all the songs, refit all of the costumes. I lived on cans of Sprite and Twix candy bars. I lost my voice at one point and had to go to the campus med center. My parents came
down to see it, and they lived ninety minutes away. That was when I got the nod. I was like, wow, all it took was me busting my ass and losing my voice.

Armando: Where did you go for undergrad?

Demetria: I started my undergrad at the University of Southern Mississippi, and I ended up finishing my degree at Grand Valley State University. I did my MFA at the University of Houston.

Armando: That's awesome! What are some of your other favorite past projects?

Demetria: The projects that I have done that I am proudest of are some of the new works I did while in Chicago. I spent most of my time as an actor developing new pieces of theatre. To be clear, we are talking about 1999, and there weren't many roles for black people in live theatre in America. If there were, they were either a Lorraine Hansberry or August Wilson piece. Lynn Nottage and similar playwrights hadn't hit mainstream regional theatre yet. The thought of being in an August Wilson show meant that there are only two black women roles of the 300+ black actresses in Chicago. That means over 300 of us are going to be unemployed. I did a lot of new play workshops and new play readings, especially with MPACT and Chicago Dramatists. New plays were my artistic food. My first paid job in Chicago was a staged reading of Lydia Diamonds, Gift Horse at Chicago Dramatists. I found the world [of new play development] to be absolutely stimulating because you had to bring everything to the table and because you didn't know what the show called for. For example, if I am going to play Juliet, I have all of these past models for Juliet, but with new plays, you have to develop the model, which is very cool. You have to be willing and able to tap into every past history, every piece of literature, movie of the week, and you have to have a pretty vast card catalog to bring to the table.

Armando: What is some of the best advice you have received that you try to instill in other people?

Demetria: You just have to try it. There is no right here. You really do have to start somewhere. It's really a Chicago actor thing. You have to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Be able to go back through and keep the things you want to keep and take out the things you don't. You have to bring everything you have, such as your sense of balance, the way you stand, the one movie you saw when you were five, or the guy who flipped you off as you came to rehearsal. It is an extremely intimate and vulnerable thing to do. If you're not doing that, why are you here, and why are you here now? Until I know what you're bringing, I can't give you direction on what to do.

Armando: It's been incredible watching you as director guide the cast as they get on their feet and feel their way through the play.

Demetria: Well, it has been a short process, and I have had to make it very clear to the ensemble that they have to bring something every day. I can't create these characters for you. You must come up with something. Whatever you come up with can be shaped into something
that works. This is not an examination of your ability to take direction but, instead, about your ability to create a character.

Armando: Right, because the character of Norca is more than just a Hispanic prostitute-ish person.

Demetria: Right because the genius of [playwright] Stephen Adly Guirgis's writing is that he offers the audience these archetypes. Starting this process, people had issues with "stereotype this, stereotype that," and I want to be very clear—stereotypes exist for a reason. It is shorthand for someone who has not had the same background experience as you. The thing that Our Lady of 121st Street does is that it allows the audience to start there, but then they get to see who these characters truly are. The Norca that [undergraduate] Karina Eulloqui is putting together is not a stereotypical fake J-Lo, burnout, whatever. She is a human being that does her damndest to stay alive every day. If anyone can see this show and change their mind about one kind of person, I feel like we have done our job. There is a vulnerability that we all share. A little bit of kindness goes a long way. A little bit of kindness does a lot of good.

Armando: That's my biggest takeaway from the rehearsal process with you is that you lead everything with kindness. You're so kind in your directing style as you help the actors find their characters.

Demetria: Aw, well, thank you. I hope that the students can learn through using classical techniques and allowing them to find different interpretations.

Armando: Well, that answers my question on how it's been going with Our Lady for you.

Demetria: Well, it's been hard because no one has done a live play in a year and a half. They have been doing some brilliant work with distance learning and over apps like Zoom. However, translating what they have learned remotely to in-person performance has been part of this enormous task. Having [actors] be connected even when they're not talking is a skill set. This is especially is true over tv or movie media. The camera will pan away from you when you are not talking. In live theatre, though, you have over a hundred cameras on you at all times, and staying present and connected with emotional stamina is difficult. We are going through a re-revelation of the power of live theatre. As we think about being together right now due to COVID, it is understandable that gathering together as a society is complicated. We are approaching emotions the same way we approach COVID these days. We are allowing our feelings to be socially distant from others. Although we slowly come out of COVID, we as a civilization need to infect each other with different ideas and perspectives. That will be the most significant marker coming out of COVID. As theatre-makers, we need to decide—we have to choose to either allow emotions to be distant or to maintain the openness and vulnerability we were used to before the pandemic. We need to get everybody back the ability to feel in public.

Armando: Right, because showing your emotions in right now public feels polarizing.

Demetria: [Laughter] It feels like we are in Victorian England right now, where nobody smiles, standing up straight, wearing a corset or a waist trainer. I love the exuberance of Americans— especially how bossy and crazy we are. I miss how I can walk into a space and express my opinion. In theatre, when we can define the rules, we can preserve the safety of opinion and make vulnerability safe and available again. For example, sometimes you go through life, and you just need a good cry movie. Sometimes I have to process some stuff, and I want the help of an artist to pull it out of me. It is a safe way to be vulnerable and to express all these emotions, but it is thorough and effective.

Armando: Well, Demetria, you're amazing, and I can't wait to see the rest of the rehearsal process and the final product.

Demetria: Well, thank you, and I look forward to seeing the finished result as well. It is going to be a blast!